Nine years ago, when I sailed the Guiding Light to New York City, I visited the Apollo Theater during the day and since then I have always wanted to attend Amateur Night there. Well the last day of July that wish came true as I happen to be in NYC on a Wednesday night.
The theater first opened in 1914 as Hurtig & Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater, an ‘white only’ venue, but in 1934 it changed owners and names and became the Apollo, open to all. The Apollo concentrates on showcasing African American acts and was at the heart of the Harlem Renaissance of the 30s and 40s. Given how many stars have had their careers started during Amateur Night the Apollo bills itself as a place “where stars are born and legends are made”.
The night starts off with the DJ and host pumping up and entertaining the crowd for an hour or so before the contestants come out. But before they perform they have to rub the stump of the Tree of Hope. This tradition has been apart of Amateur Night since the beginning in 1934 when the host Ralph Cooper Sr bought a piece of the popular tree when it was cut down to expand 7th Ave between 131st and 132nd St. It was believed to bring good luck to any that touched it. The acts can be of any talent, but singing and dancing are the most common. The unique thing about Amateur Night is how much the audience participates, cheering or booing as the performers are in the middle of their act. If enough boos are heard the “executioner” will come out with a broom and sweep them off the stage. This almost happened on the very first act, but he turned it around and won the crowd over. With this immediate reaction there is a saying at the Apollo and that is to “be good or be gone”.
If you ever get the chance to attend Amateur Night at the Apollo be prepared to enjoy yourself and join the crowd in your vocalization. If not you will probably not have fun and end up leaving halfway through it as the two ladies next to me did. Too bad for them. 🙂